College students have been a historic force in advocating for an end to conflicts across the world. This year is an opportunity to do so once more. Since peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians resumed in July, Secretary of State John Kerry has made more than 10 trips to the region, returning from the most recent round of negotiations last week. Yet even though Kerry has brought leaders from both sides to the negotiating table, U.S. students at college campuses such as USC have embarked on pointless blame games.
USC campus organizations, such as USC Students for Justice in Palestine and ‘SC Students for Israel, have hosted numerous events about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though these events bring different voices to campus, few are co-sponsored by USC SJP and Hillel or SCSI, and as such, members from each of these organizations rarely attend the events of the other. As a result, these events become poorly attended forums for a one-sided discussion about the conflict, leaving the only opportunity for engagement to the occasional protest on Trousdale Parkway.
This polarity was especially prevalent during SJP’s Palestine Awareness Week last spring, during which students in SJP conducted a mock checkpoint to simulate the Israeli security barriers through which West Bank residents must pass in order to enter Israel proper. Rather than address the real problems that arise from these checkpoints, members of SCSI stood across the plaza, holding Israeli flags and signs. Their frustration with the mock checkpoints was understandable, yet contributed to a week already full of misunderstandings and inefficiencies. With neither group effectively addressing the concerns of the other, the entire campus community lost a valuable opportunity to support the U.S.-led negotiations in the region and serve as an example to deeply divided campuses across the country.
The polarizing nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campuses isn’t just a USC problem — USC is just a microcosm of what is currently taking place on the world stage. But if these difficult conversations can happen at the international level between Israeli and Palestinian leadership, there’s no reason they can’t occur on college campuses, where the stakes are lower and the culture of education and engaging with new ideas is omnipresent.
The return to the negotiating table by Israeli and Palestinian leaders presents another opportunity for college students to stand united in support for peace, and USC students — regardless of faith or ethnicity — should not miss this chance.
At many universities, this work has already begun. A growing number of organizations like J Street U, the student arm of a national organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has already brought challenging and thoughtful discussions about the the conflict to 49 universities in the United States. The J Street U chapter at UCLA, for example, recently hosted an event called Conflict 101. It brought students from across the political spectrum to discuss the conflict and examine the different narratives within it. If our crosstown rivals can engage in these difficult conversations, there’s no reason USC students shouldn’t.
College students have always played a critical role in facilitating social change. The current round of peace talks — negotiations which have thus far failed under four U.S. presidents — should not and cannot be taken lightly.
It is easy to distance oneself from difficult topics such as this conflict. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the fact that millions of Israelis continue to live under the fear of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and millions of Palestinians continue to live under military occupation. But claiming to be apolitical or failing to support the difficult compromises needed to reach peace does more harm than good.
For this reason, fostering open and constructive dialogue that encourages students to take real political action towards peace is fundamentally important. Whether USC students are more concerned with Israeli security or Palestinian human rights, they must join with a diverse range of their peers in support of the ongoing negotiations.
By spearheading initiatives like J Street’s 2 Campaign, which encourages students to grapple with the key issues that come up in negotiations, USC students can begin the type of dialogue our campus so desperately needs. In doing so, they can ultimately help in this seemingly intractable conflict’s endless pursuit of peace.
From the #USChangeMovement to public forums discussing the university’s drinking culture, USC students have never backed away from difficult conversations. As students across the nation begin to wrestle with the difficult dialogue surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, USC students should refuse to be left behind.
Yasmeen Serhan is a sophomore majoring in international relations. She is also the Editorial Director of the Daily Trojan.